THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

71 posts categorized "Asia"

01 March 2017

Rescuing precious recordings of Nepal’s folk music heritage

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When the main earthquake struck in April 2015 Ram and Homenath were working within the Museum building. They ran outside to the temple courtyard as the top story of the temple crashed to the ground. Once the red tiles beneath their feet became stable and the temple buildings ceased to sway, they surveyed the damage. The building on the North of the quadrangle that housed the Music Museum was cracked but still standing. They did not go back inside, but locked the door and went home to check the safety of their families. Despite the frequent aftershocks they returned the next day and ventured inside. Instruments had fallen to the floor and several had been damaged by falling debris. The room that housed the archive materials was in total disarray. Cassettes, manuscripts and mini-dvs were strewn across the floor covered with dust, bricks and a fallen beam.

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But let’s step back to before that day. Nepal has folk songs and melodies, and the musical instruments to accompany them that have been passed down through the generations for hundreds of years. Some were sung and played by the community as a whole, others were the specific domain of the musician castes or the wandering minstrel castes. Some were sung and played for specific festivals and ceremonies that happen annually. Some were sung in the fields while planting or weeding rice, whilst others were sung by the whole community once the harvest was in and it was time to celebrate. Some were sung by the minstrels as they travelled from village to village with news of what was happening elsewhere. Others still were hymns of praise to specific gods or were sacred epic stories and poems. Others again were simply love songs of young people who could not be together or the laments of women whose husbands have been forced by poverty to seek employment in a foreign land. Some were the humorous flirtations of a man with his sister in law, and others still were the sacred songs of Buddhist ritual dances performed in secret.

The folk music tradition of Nepal was rich. The instruments, music, songs and dances of the diverse ethnic groups of Nepal are unique in the world, yet so much has been lost over the last few generations. With the deliberate burning of Newari monastery libraries in the 1840s, the written record of music and dance culture in Nepal is very rare. Until the last two to three generations, Nepal has been a predominantly oral culture. The archive since pre-modern times has actually been in the hearts and minds of an increasingly aging and diminishing pool of artists. In a country where the priority of the majority is to meet very basic needs for food, shelter, health care and education; no official action has been taken to halt this decline.

Therefore Ram Prasad Kadel decided to make it his life’s work to record and preserve as much of Nepal's musical heritage as possible. He began making tape recordings in 1997 to add to hand written notes, testimonies, song lyrics and other records made since establishing the Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum in 1995. The museum later became the Music Museum of Nepal, which is entirely run on a voluntary basis. Over the years, Ram and various friends of the Museum have identified and tracked down key communities and individuals who still have the folk music skills and knowledge. The collection now also includes additional donated recordings, a significant number of which predate the work of the Museum. The archive at the Museum is currently the only way that present and future generations in Nepal, and international researchers, can access the playing of instruments that have all but died out, the melodies and lyrics of songs which are no longer sung, and dances and ceremonies which are rarely or no longer performed.

The audio cassettes and mini dv tapes, manuscript books and photographs in the archive, however, have been damaged by a range of factors - by light, dust, atmospheric pollution, mould and silverfish. And then they were shaken off the shelves to the floor and broken by falling bricks during those earthquakes that critically damaged the temple building in which the museum and archive were based.

2Staff and volunteers attend training in repairing damaged tapes

But the good news is that Ram and the other staff at the Museum are determined to preserve as much of the archive as possible, and through the support of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP901) they are able to do that. Hence EAP 901 is about preserving the unique music and dance archive at the Museum by transferring the most endangered material to a digital format. The archive is highly vulnerable because of damage to the existing formats and because once they deteriorate beyond the point of digital capture they are irreplaceable. Many of the artists whose work is represented in the archive have already died. Elders that remain grieved that they have little or no opportunity to transfer their knowledge of melodies, lyrics, dance steps, mudras, secret and sacred rituals, musical instrument playing techniques and instrument-making skills to the younger generations. They find some solace in the fact that it has been recorded.

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The building that houses the Museum was shored up from behind and stabilised by the archaeology department soon after the earthquakes. Several opportunities of a safe place for the Museum's collections appeared to present themselves over the last 22 months, but none actually materialised. Despite this, the Museum's work had to continue and its commitments had to be met. Gradually Ram and the team regained some confidence to enter the building, initially just for salvage, but later to clean up the mess and eventually to continue to use the existing building when the frequency of after-shocks had lessened considerably. A temporary office was constructed on the ground floor close to the door to allow for swift exit if necessary. The instrument display has been cleaned and rearranged (by generous volunteers), broken instruments replaced and the archive has also been largely rescued and cleaned up with some of the most valuable salvaged analogue recordings still being stored in Ram's house. The Museum is now receiving visitors as it did before the earthquake.

4School children visit the museum

At the moment, there is no definite prospect of relocating the museum and no definite plan to repair the existing building either. However, the team never gives up hope, as demolition and rebuilding work goes on all around them, that the building will be satisfactorily repaired one day or that they will be able to find a new location.

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The work of preserving the archive currently continues from the temporary office. Without the EAP grant to enable the digital reproduction, the archive would undoubtedly deteriorate further and likely be lost, so the team are working with great enthusiasm and dedication to preserve as much as possible.

Written by Sibongile Pradhan, Ram Kadel and Norma Blackstock, grant holders for EAP736 and EAP901

Images copyright: Music Museum of Nepal

21 February 2017

What does one gift to the Dalai Lama?

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Ever wondered what one would give to the new Dalai Lama if one had the opportunity to attend his enthronement ceremony?

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This file (1939-40), over 200 pages long, provides a chronological and detailed account of the planning and sourcing of gifts, articulated concerns and queries about culture, customs, and protocol, and vivid travel descriptions of the journey from Gangtok (Sikkim) to Lhasa (Tibet), for the infant Tenzing Gyatso’s official enthronement as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.  

Recognised as the official reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1939, his enthronement ceremony as the next Dalai Lama was scheduled for 22 February, 1940 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In Sikkim (which had close relations with Tibet, spiritually, culturally, economically, and familial), officials were deciding what gifts to send to Lhasa for the occasion, and who would represent the Sikkim State at this auspicious and once-in-a-lifetime ceremony.

Sikkim’s 11th Chogyal, Tashi Wangyal Namgyal (r.1914-1963), chose to send his eldest son, Crown Prince Kunzang Paljor Namgyal (1921-1941), and the British decided to send Basil Gould (Political Officer, Sikkim), who would have been more familiar with the cultures of the region.

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It seems Gould took it upon himself to write to the headmaster of Bishop’s Cotton School (Shimla) where Crown Prince Paljor was studying, informing the school of the Prince’s impending absence – and rather comically, it seems he felt that “…the condition of a boy’s teeth” was a “very important matter”!

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Meanwhile, the Chogyal’s office set to work brainstorming gifts to offer the new Dalai Lama, sourcing them from various vendors from Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and the Army and Navy Store, Calcutta. The gifts included, among other items: A pair of sporting rifles; a 12ft tiger skin; a clock; a writing attaché case, a silver tea set, a pair of binoculars, and a pair of English ponies — the latter evidently caused quite a bit of trouble in their procurement as the file goes on to illustrate!

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The Chogyal’s eldest brother, former Crown Prince Tsodag Namgyal (1877-1942) had been removed from the line of succesion by the British in the mid-1890s and had been living in Tibet ever since. His son, Jigme Sumtsen Wangpo Namgyal, was a big support in the Chogyal’s endeavours to pay respects to the Dalai Lama, and it has been interesting to see how little the political interference and geographical borders seem to have affected the strength of family ties.

On 22 January, 1940, the Chogyal writes to his nephew, Jigme Sumtsen, to inform him that due to Prince Paljor’s young age and the anticipated harsh winter weather, Sikkim will instead send the Pipon of Lachen1.

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The Chogyal asks his nephew to guide Pipon Sonam Wangyal in the elaborate, and oftentimes confusing, protocol of Lhasa aristocracy, and informs him that he is sending a tea set to Jigme Sumtsen in advance, as a token of his appreciation. 

On the 24 January, the Pipon sets off for Lhasa with four orderlies and arrives 13 days later on the 6 February, 1940. 

Meanwhile, the Chogyal accompanied by Prince Paljor and Princess Pema Tsedeun had left for Delhi to attend the investiture ceremony of the Viceroy of India. On their way back they visited Varanasi and Bodhgaya on Buddhist pilgrimage, and the correspondence between Chogyal and his nephew continued despite the hurdles of distance and difficulty of communication deriving from constant travel in early 20th century India. 

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These beautifully articulated, and oftentimes endearing letters, exchanged between uncle and nephew provide windows of insight into both mundane and courtly life of the era. The latter wonderfully illustrated with Jigme Sumtsen reporting to the Chogyal about the ceremony’s success, the reception of the gifts from Sikkim, and reference to the official letters of acknowledgement that are being carried back across the Himalayas by Pipon Wangyal.

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But where does one find a pair of English ponies on the Indian subcontinent in 1940? With the start of summer, the search began in earnest, and queries were sent out to Kalimpong, Calcutta, Bombay, and eventually to the Punjab, requesting information on ponies of a certain height and colour.

The Chogyal’s brother-in-law, a Bhutanese known as Raja Sonam Tobgay Dorji (1896-1953) was based in Kalimpong, and he along with Sergul Tsering (Sikkim’s Vetinary Inspector) travelled to Calcutta, where on the 9 September, after visiting various stables across the city, they found a promising young pony at Dum Dum stable. One down!

From there, on the 13 September, the Veterinary Inspector took a 200 rupee advance and continued on to a firm in Punjab which had a reputation of breeding good English horses, and there he was able to procure the second horse for 1,500 Indian rupees.

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By early October, the horses were sent up to Lhasa, again with the logistical help and facilitation of Jigme Sumtsen, and presented to the Dalai Lama’s office. Jigme Sumtsen’s letters back to the Chogyal indicate that the officials in Tibet were both impressed and very happy with the horses, and that above and beyond, they were the tallest horses in the stables of the Potala Palace!

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Among other highlights, this file illustrates the frugality of expenditures with meticulous financial accounts of the trip, including the Pipon’s monthly payment (70 rupees; plus 50 rupees for warm clothes); the cost of the travels; and his use of the 50 allocated letter papers, 50 envelopes, 1 pencil, 2 penholders and a pocket book. It includes beautifully written letters from Tibet on handmade parchment paper, and gives insight into the workings of the Sikkim Palace’s administration, as well as the nature of their relationship with both Tibet and the British Empire.

So, if you ever find yourself in a position where you need to present gifts at an enthronement ceremony, this archive might be just what you need...

1. Lachen is a wide valley village in North Sikkim known for its unique system of local community governance, known as the ‘Dzumsa.’ The rotating head of the Dzumsa is refered to by the title ‘Pipon’ (and interestingly, this form of local governance is still practiced today with semi-autonomy within the wider state adminstration).

Written by

Pema Abrahams, grant holder for EAP880

09 February 2017

New collections online - February 2017

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This month we have three new collections added to the EAP website: Buddhist manuscripts from Laos, and Tamil and Burmese studio photography.

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP737: Representing Self and Family. Preserving early Tamil studio photography

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s with the first photographic society in South India being created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, the constraints and costs of acquiring photographic equipment meant that photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s medium size towns, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. In South India, prior to the arrival of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families, combining the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage and montage.

There is a real urgency in preserving these photographs. Many of the earlier photographs produced by the commercial photo studios are showing signs of deterioration due to some of the chemical processes used for developing and printing during the first decades of photographic production. The climatic conditions of South India are extremely detrimental for photographic prints and negatives, even for those printed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. With the advent of mechanised processing and printing followed by the digital revolution in photography, many of the old photo studios have closed down and their archives of glass-plate negatives and film negatives have been destroyed, either through lack of interest or space to conserve them.

The project team were able to conduct fieldwork in the eight target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), and were also able to carry out surveys in an additional six towns (Chidambaram, Jayamkundan, Meencuruti, Pollachi, Tindivanam, Villupuram). In each locality, the oldest photo studios where sought out and in total 100 photo studios were approached over the course of the pilot project. In many instances, but not all, the owners of the photo collections have given their consent for future digitisation of their archives. Also, family members of studios which have closed down over the last 30 years were also sought out as some of them still hold the archives of the old family business.

This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitisation is urgent. The team members have noted that in most of the cases, either the owners had destroyed whole collections for lack of interest or lack of space, or the remaining photographic material is in a state of severe degradation due to poor conservation conditions.

The project team were able to digitise a sample of around 1000 photographs from some of the studios surveyed, from private family collections, and from those purchased by the team in local second-hand shops.

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EAP737/4/3/8 - Events Negatives Box 30 [1962]

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP691: Rare manuscripts of great Buddhist thinkers of Laos: digitisation, translation and relocation at the 'Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang'

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by several great Buddhist abbots of Luang Prabang in Laos. The manuscripts present valuable insight into the diverse intellectual interests of leading Theravada thinkers of the 20th century in one of the least known Buddhist cultures in the world. Notwithstanding its rich culture, deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism, Laos is still one of the least researched countries of Southeast Asia. During the second half of the 20th century, significant parts of the country’s cultural heritage have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, due to foreign interventions, civil war, and revolution. As a great surprise to international researchers, Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, managed to preserve important parts of Lao heritage.

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by Pha Khamchan Virachitto (Vat Saen Sukharam), Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (Vat Suvannakhili), and Pha Bunchankeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan). Colophons and other paratexts (such as prefaces and titles) were transcribed into modern Lao. Roughly half of the manuscripts have such colophons which in most cases mention not only the date when the writing of the manuscript was finished, but also the names of sponsors and donors of the manuscripts and, more rarely, the name of the scribes. Preservation work has also been carried out on the original manuscripts which are now stored under safer and more accessible conditions

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EAP691/3/2/18 - Thanakhan Ban Pai ( fascicle no.5) (ທານະຂັນບັ້ນປາຍຜູກ 5) (1674)

EAP898: Myanmar negative record

This project aimed to set out to investigate the remaining negative archives and collections of local Burmese photographers. The project was able to identify two studios in Yangon that agreed to have some of the negatives in their archives digitised. The majority of the negatives come from the Bellay Photo Studio, with a smaller collection digitised from Asia Studio.

The owner of the Bellay Photo Studio, Tun Tun Lay, agreed to the digitisation of some of the negatives taken by his father, Har Si Yoi, starting in 1963, only one year after General Ne Win’s coup d’état. The images taken in the studio capture life during the so-called ‘lost decades’ and present a unique insight into this time period, as there are no archives in Myanmar or abroad that hold a comprehensive collection of images from those decades. Bellay Photo Studio is run by an ethnically Chinese family and many of the clients were Chinese-Burmese as well. A community that suffered greatly during Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism; they were persecuted, their properties were nationalised, and finally a ban on Chinese-language education was issued, which forced a major exodus of Burmese-Chinese to other countries. The negatives at the studio used to be stored in two large wooden cabinets which were destroyed by termites and humidity along with more than 50% of the negatives. The loose negatives, which had been kept in envelopes, have been stored in plastic bags since 2012.

Another small but important archive of 134 negatives, including glass plates, was archived on the outskirts of Yangon. The grandson of the famed Asia Studio proprietor, U Kyawt, allowed the project to digitise a small section of his collection. The negatives and plates are stored in a wooden box without any kind of protection. The images include press photography capturing Aung San who is considered to be the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and a hero for his struggle for independence. He is also the father of politician and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The images were taken in the 1940s; Aung San was assassinated in 1947. The Asia Studio archive holds many more valuable images that are at risk due to the storage environment.

The digitised negatives form a very important record from after Myanmar’s independence and will allow not only researchers in the West but also Burmese to access the unique photographic culture of their past that documented everyday life and how Burmese citizens wanted to be portrayed. This is especially true for the images from Bellay Photo Studio, as they represent various communities of Yangon in the late 1960s and 70s.

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/2/1 - Bellay Studio [1969-1982]

20 January 2017

A Royal Proposal of Marriage

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Now well into our digitisation workflow process, team EAP880 all took some time out mesmerised by the contents of one particular file…

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Caught at the crossworlds of British India, Tibetan Buddhism, and Burmese political transitions, this file captures the furtive and subsequent official engagement between a Himalayan prince, HRH Sidkeong Tulku of Sikkim (1879-1914) and a Burmese princess-in-exile, HRH Teik-Tin Ma Lat (b.1894).

Through first-hand accounts, it provides a rare lens into the emerging internationalism of the era touching upon Britain, Ladakh, India, Sikkim, Tibet, Burma, and Japan. It takes us through the couple’s first meeting, their love letters, their differences, and their wedding plans, and culminates with the Prince’s untimely and mysterious death—three months before his wedding—at age 35.

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Photo: Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal was never destined for the throne: As the second son of Sikkim’s 9th Chogyal (King) Thutob Namgyal and a recognised reincarnate lama he had taken monastic vows of celibacy and was beginning his Buddhist studies in the monastery.

 

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Photo: 9th Sikkim Chogyal (King) Thutob Namgyal © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

However, his father’s reign had been characterised by waves of aggression from both modern day Nepal and Bhutan, and—in a regional theatre dominated by the Great Game—increasing British interventionism as the latter strove to counter a perceived Russian influence in Lhasa. It was through the Sikkim Himalayas that they saw their greatest chances of success.

Increasingly wary of the scope of Tibetan belligerence, the British sought to exert influence over Sikkim’s politics: On refusing to recall Crown Prince Tsodag from their summer estates in Chumbi (Tibet), the British held the Chogyal and his family, for two years near Darjeeling – ironically, a tract of land leased to them by the 8th Chogyal of Sikkim.

While in captivity, the Chogyal—out of mistrust of British intention and fear for his son’s life—maintained his refusal to order the Crown Prince’s return. He was finally released when the Viceroy of India, authorised the removal of the Crown Prince from the line of the succession, and investing Prince Sidkeong Tulku as heir apparent. And so, began the generous grooming of Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal.

 

04_IMG_1466Photo: Lt. O’Connor © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

After a brief stint with Sarat Chandra Das and at St. Paul’s School (Darjeeling), the prince went to Pembroke College, Oxford University (1906-08), during which time he was under the care of Lt. Col. O’Connor with whom he became quite close, and John Claude White (Political Officer, Sikkim).

Fluent in Chinese, Hindi, English, Lepcha, Nepali, and Tibetan, the Prince visited New York, European capitals, and Burma keeping a handwritten, large-format diary—in English—of his travels, replete with photos, mementos, invitations, and playbills. He returned to Sikkim progressive and full of energy, advocating for judicial, land, and monastic reforms.

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Photo: Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to John Claude White (5th November, 1906)

By 1906, Sikkim’s new Crown Prince decided he should soon marry and began a search for a well-educated woman with a compatible fluency in English, and a shared Buddhist heritage.

Though the Government of India had no objection, the Chogyal of Sikkim, still raw from the treatment he had been subjected to and perhaps moved deeply by his devotion to the Buddha dharma, held the opinion that the Prince—an incarnation of a lama—should refrain from both marriage and activity in worldly affairs, in favour of spiritual practice. The British, in contrast, were only too eager to help the Crown Prince!

06_DSC00600Photo: Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to Curzon Wylie (13th June, 1908)

Prince Sidkeong Tulku—in admiration of Japanese culture—wished to marry a Japanese. During a visit to Japan, the British Ambassador bore the responsibility of inviting Sidkeong to various dances and dinners, but with no obvious match made, the Government of India decided that a Burmese would be preferable, as unlike Japan, Tibet, or Siam, Burma was under British rule.

07_DSC00599Photo: Letter from W.H. Hodges to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (9th October, 1910)

It then fell on the Government of Burma to provide a list of suitable ladies, and the respective governments of Bombay and the United Provinces, to provide lists of Burma’s royal lineage ladies whose families were living in exile in India. These were  presented to the Prince in late 1910.

The Prince of Limbin (Limbin Mintha), a grandson of King Tharrawaddy, and his daughters were living in Allahabad, which, in December 1910 was (rather conveniently) preparing to host the the three-month Allahabad Exhibition. This provided the perfect opportunity for Prince Sidkeong to meet Limbin Mintha’s family, while arousing minimal suspician at home.

Accompanied by Kazi Gyaltsen to Allahabad, Prince Sidkeong hosted a dinner party for Limbin Mintha and gifted Princess Ma Lat an image of the Buddha and a basket of Sikkim oranges. After a few meetings, Charles Bell (Political Officer, Sikkim) noted that the prince had not made a decision and that he had instead requested enquiries to be made for potential brides in Siam, Kashmir, Ladakh, and again in Japan.

However, finding a woman in Siam educated in English proved too difficult, and though one Shimchung Gialmon Lhadun of Mathu (Ladakh) was suggested, the Prince disapproved of her illiteracy (despite remarking on her physical beauty).

Again, in 1911, he wrote to Colin J. Davidson (Assistant Secretary, British Embassy in Japan) requesting his help in finding a suitable bride, however, the Anglo-Japan relation was deteriorating and Davidson advised against this, citing in addition that, “The knowledge they (Japanese ladies) acquire is very meagre and as a rule almost useless for practical purposes…”

So it was in 1912 that Prince Sidkeong chose to marry Princess Ma Lat, whose family by this time had returned to Rangoon, despite the fact that on principle, his father—the Chogyal—still opposed any marriage just as he had in 1908.

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Photo: Letter from W.H. Hodges to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (30th June, 1913); and Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to Charles Bell (28th July, 1913).

Instead, the Government of India assumed the role of a negotiater securing the consent of Limbin Mintha for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Prince Sidkeong advised that the Chogyal should not yet be informed due to the seriousness of his father’s illness. Yet in the meantime, the Prince made a visit to Rangoon, to fulfill the dual purpose of both pilgrimage and proposal.

09_DSC00605Photo: Letter from Princess Ma Lat to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (22nd November, 1913)

The initial 1913 Rangoon wedding date was repeatedly postponed by the Prince whose concern for his father’s deteriorating health became his priority. However, over the course of a regular correspondence between the engaged, the Prince and Princess exchanged letters discussing designs of the wedding dress and rings, as well as expenses.

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Photo: Sub-folder of astrological calculations for the marriage of Prince Sidkeong Tulku of Sikkim with Princess Ma Lat of Limbin (Burma)

In June 1914—as per Sikkimese custom—an astrologer was consulted on whose advice the Prince set the wedding for 24th January 1915 in Rangoon. Meanwhile, the Princess Ma Lat had requested Sidkeong to send her a Sikkimese ayah in order to help familiarise herself with Sikkimese culture. (The Prince advises Ma Lat to read more books instead!)

On 10th February, 1914, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal passed away. The prince wrote to his fiancée explaining the Sikkimese custom of one year’s mourning, which was especially important given there was some disapproval of the match in Sikkim. Moreover, he notes that Britain was now at war with Germany and under such situations, officials were busy with war efforts.

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Photo: Letter from Princess Ma Lat to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (26th November, 2014)

This was likely the last letter the Prince received from his fiancée for after only nine months on the throne, in December 1914, Prince Sidkeong Tulku died in what the British call “mysterious circumstances” while ill in bed, just one month before his marriage.

 

Written by Pema Abrahams, grant holder for EAP880

26 October 2016

Fragments of Sikkim

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Pema Abrahams' blog describes her recently awarded project (EAP880) that seeks to preserve, document, digitise, and make accessible a collection of approximately 100,000 documents from the Sikkim Palace Archives, 1875 – 1975.

Sikkim is a landlocked state of India, hidden amongst the deep folds of the Himalaya, tucked between Nepal, Tibet, West Bengal, and Bhutan.

Sikkim_area_map_svgSikkim area map: Wikimedia Foundation (www.wikimedia.org)  CC BY 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons

A former Buddhist kingdom ruled for over 300 years by the Namgyal dynasty of ‘Chogyals’ (or dharma rajas – spiritual and temporal monarchs). Sikkim was often called the ‘Switzerland of the East’ and has been best known for its unique Buddhist traditions, its agricultural produce, for providing the British Empire with an access route to Tibet, and for the magnificent beauty of its natural landscape, including Mt. Khangchendzonga, the world’s third highest peak.

Khanchendzonga sunrise (2)Khanchendzonga at sunrise: copyright Pema Abrahams

In fact, just earlier this year we took much pride in 25% of the state being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing India’s first mixed category site—for the area’s natural significance which includes a vertical sweep of over seven kilometers within an area of only 178,400 hectares, as well as its cultural significance for the mythological stories and the indigenous practices that have been, and continue to be, integrated with these mountains, caves, lakes, and rivers, many of which we consider sacred.

Dzongri west Sikkim (2)Dzongri west Sikkim: copyright Pema Abrahams

However, nowadays discussions, whether academic or popular, concerning historical aspects of Sikkim suffer from a paucity of sources, exacerbated by the sensitive political situation of Sikkim after its annexation by India in 1975. As a result its in-depth study is restricted, a balanced understanding of the history of this region is impossible, no Sikkim history is taught in any local school, and not a single museum exists in the state.

For a population of over 600,000 Sikkimese who speak over 10 distinct languages amongst them, the consequences that this historical vacuum leaves - which denies our communities a sense of historical identity and access to their roots, as well as the facility of cultural preservation in a rapidly homogenising India - can often be painful to acknowledge, and does our current generation an immense disservice.

Photo No 3 StorageStorage of part of the collection

This collection which numbers approximately 100,000 documents will provide an overview of, and a rare insight into, late 19th and 20th century Sikkim, introducing the characters and events that shaped the development of the kingdom and its eventual integration into India. Its contents are powerful, never-before-seen documents, which breathe life into a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its complex history at the crosswords of British India and Tibetan Buddhism. They contain a unique and priceless record of the region that will be of interest to scholars of both this Himalayan state and the wider region of South and Central Asia, and they harbour the potential to guide Sikkimese, visitors, and scholars alike in discovering the richness of this forgotten kingdom, and in giving voice to the untold histories of one of India's youngest states. 

Hoping to contribute to the growing archive of historical research and cultural revitalization in India, this project was born out of a thirst for knowledge and exists as an exercise of scholarship and archive, of discourse and development. Our goal is to make this information accessible and engaging to audiences both international and domestic. But at the heart of this project is our aspiration that the information unearthed in this collection will be of benefit to our Sikkimese youth who will bear the responsibility for the direction of our collective relationships with our communities and our cultures, who have precious few historical references on which to fall back on.

_DSC1376The EAP880 team with Dr Alex McKay, Prakash Ram and Sundar Ganesan (R-L)

At our core are a team of five, young Sikkimese who have a genuine interest in the material, and a strong commitment to the values of the project. In the five weeks since the start of our twelve-month project, we’ve created a database with rough details of the 800+ folders in our collection and have labelled, for ease of our own sorting and finding the filing cabinets in which the collection has been held, untouched, for much of the past 40 years. We’ve enjoyed a visit by our Academic Advisor, Dr Alex McKay, who in addition to creating an exhaustive list of categories and sub-categories for the collection, gave a series of talks sharing some of his expertise with our young team to help us put the collection into historical context and understand its full value.

2016-10-04 16.24.25 copyDr Alex McKay overseeing work on the archive

We’ve also hosted Sundar Ganesan (Director) and Prakash Ram (Assistant Director) from The Roja Muthiah Research Library (Chennai) to train our team in archival methodology, documentation of collections, and digitisation techniques. It was an enlightening week for us all; an experience for which we are all very grateful, and a relationship we feel very fortunate to have forged and hope to continue throughout our own development process.

_DSC1358Pema Abrahams with Sundar Ganesan (R) and Prakash Ram (C)

_DSC1356Discussing the project with Prakash Ram

13 October 2016

New collections online - September 2016

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Over the past month we have made four new projects available to view through our website. We have also added two new projects to BL Sounds. There are now eight EAP funded projects on Sounds in total, with over 25,000 tracks to listen to. This includes a wide variety of genres of music from Micronesia (EAP115) and Guinea ( EAP187, EAP327, EAP608); folk and traditional songs and talks from the Uralic speaking regions of Russia (EAP347); Indian classical music (EAP190; EAP468); and musical pieces and poetry from Iran (EAP088).

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EAP347 - Vanishing voices from the Uralic world: sound recordings for archives in Russia (in particular Udmurtia), Estonia, Finland and Hungary

The EAP347 project was funded to help preserve sound recordings from the Uralic speaking world that were collected at the Udmurt Institute for History, Language and Literature, Izhevsk, Russia. Most of the recordings are from the Udmurt Republic and the surrounding regions of the Russian Federation, including the Republic of Tatarstan, Kirov Oblast, Republic of Bashkortostan, and Perm Krai. These recordings can be browsed through their region, language, subject, title and recording date. They include many recordings of traditional songs and oral history, featuring subjects such as ‘army recruitment’, ‘drinking songs’, ‘guest songs’, ‘fairy tales’, and ‘wedding’. There are 6118 recordings in total available to listen to here

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EAP704/1/1: Mäshafä salot - Book of Prayer [1495-1505]

EAP704: The Melvin Seiden Award: Digitisation of the monastic archives of Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay (Shire region, Tigray Province, Ethiopia)

This project aimed to secure and digitise two collections of Ethiopian manuscripts kept in remote monasteries located in the Shire region of the Province of Tigray: Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay. These manuscripts are crucial for the study of Ethiopian and Eastern Christian monasticism and the history of Ethiopia, particularly for the northern regions which are now a part of Eritrea and difficult for researchers to access. They also document the history of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and bring to light the new and little known works of Christian and Ethiopian Church literature. The digitised material is a great resource for researchers studying the history of manuscript and Ethiopian art history in the context of Christian, Oriental and Byzantine artistic traditions. The project was able to fully digitise the two collections. 61 manuscripts were digitised from Marawe Krestos and a further 45 belonging to Däbrä Abbay. A total of 14,602 folios, covers and edges were digitised. The material dates from the 14th century to the 20th century.

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EAP704/1/5: "Mäshafä kufale, Isayeyas - Book of Jubilees, Book of Isaiah [1360-1399]

 EAP115 - Collection and digitisation of old music in pre-literate Micronesian society

The EAP115 project aimed to collect and digitise music and recorded chants from around the Micronesia region. It achieved this by gathering music from government radio stations in Majuro, Marshall Islands; Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap, Federated States of Micronesia; and Koror, Palau, as well as from private collections and church sources in Chuuk, including the Liebenzell Mission and the Catholic Church media studio. The collection features a wide variety of musical styles and charts the evolution of music in the region, with recordings ranging from religious chants and choirs, to more modern rock and reggae songs. All 7069 recordings are available to listen to freely from around the world on BL Sounds. So far the most shared track is the aptly named ‘A happy celebration song’, performed by girls from Woleai, Yap State. You can listen to the track here and explore from there.

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EAP636/5/43: Historia da Misericordia de Goa [1912]

 EAP636 - Creating a digital archive of Indian Christian manuscripts

Portuguese rule in Goa bequeathed a vibrant Catholic community and a rich legacy of texts in Portuguese and Indian vernacular languages. These texts are held in a number of different State, Church, private institutional and family collections and have often been forgotten or lost in collections with no catalogues, remaining invisible to scholars and those interested in the history of Christianity in the area. Many of these texts, dating back to the sixteenth century, were in danger of being lost altogether due to uncertain archival conditions and poor preservation. The aim of this project therefore was to locate, identify and digitise many of these Christian manuscripts located in the region of Konkan. By creating a centralised digital archive of these texts the project has been able to provide a significant resource for scholars and community members interested in the history of Goa, particularly its Catholic communities.

The project was able to digitise the collections of several local families as well as those of institutions in the region. This included digitisation of the manuscript collection, as well as significant books, from the Seminary of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier in Pilar, relating to the order and to the Church in Goa. The Jesuit-run Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr (TSKK) research, educational and cultural centre also agreed to let its collection of manuscripts be digitised. This included its collection of microfilms of early Marāṭhi and Kōṅkaṇī manuscripts.

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EAP636/4/39: Historia dos Animais e Arvores do Maranhao [1967]

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 EAP675/23/1: "Turks in Kardzhali region, South Bulgaria. Akhmed Yusmenov collection [1950s-1980s]"

 EAP675 - Documentation of the pre-industrial elements in Bulgarian minorities' culture during the 20th century - phase II

This project was focused on the discovery, analysis and digitisation of 20th century photographs depicting elements of Bulgarian minorities’ culture. The project was targeted at different ethnic and religious communities, such as Old Believers, Turks, Armenians, Karakachans, and Vlachs. This major project continued the work carried out in the earlier EAP500 pilot project, which focused mainly on a few small collections of Pomaks, Turkish, Karakchan and Tatar images.

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EAP675/10/1: Armenians from different Balkan regions - Haskovo city. Philip Derandonyan's collection [1910s-1960s]

Documentary material from minority groups in Bulgaria is scantily represented or missing from Bulgarian archives. The reason for this is rooted mostly in the mono-centred state policy, focused for a long period solely on the Bulgarian ethnic tradition and culture, as well as in the policy of the Bulgarian state before 1989 aimed at forced assimilation of minorities. This is the reason for the gradual disappearance or even purposeful destruction of pictures and photographic collections of the different minorities in the country, particularly of the Muslim minority during the so called “Revival process” in Bulgaria in the 1960s-1980s. The policy of the Bulgarian state for a forced assimilation of the Muslims was accompanied with the destruction of all documents – official, personal and family – that were testament to their minority identity. Through the research carried out both in this project and EAP500, it has been found that such documents had often been hidden and saved, although often in inappropriate conditions. The project succeeded in discovering and safeguarding these images, and helped create an understanding amongst these groups as to the importance of the project and the need for preservation of these endangered archival documents. Since completion of the project the team has continued to be notified of newly discovered material with families opening up their own collections for study and digitisation.


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EAP675/22/1: Karakachans in Sliven region [1930s-1980s]

 EAP683 - Rāmamālā Library manuscript project

This project set out to create an inventory of 6000 primarily Sanskrit, Prakrit and Bengali manuscripts held in the Rāmamālā Trust compound in Comilla, Bangladesh, and to digitise a sample of them. Established in 1935 by Maheśacandra Bhaṭṭācārya and currently run by the Mahesh Charitable Trust, the collection was meant to promote education and preserve Bengali culture. It was also intended as a resource for preserving and promoting Hinduism within a dominant Muslim environment on the eve of British colonialism. Much of the library is thus dedicated to Sanskrit scientific and legal literature. Yet it also contains unique texts in a variety of other Sanskrit genres and includes many regional works in Bengali (eg, a rare version of the Mahābhārata), together with some works in Prakrit. Consequently, it preserves a snapshot of the literary and religious culture of the region in pre-colonial and colonial times, encompassing not just Hindu works but also works related to a distinctive, regional variety of Islam (Satyapīr). The collection has been physically displaced twice. First during the upheavals in 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned, and then again in 1971 when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. Early attempts to itemise, catalogue, and identify manuscripts have been largely lost; all that remains by means of a catalogue is a general overview of the collection and archives of a few handwritten notes. The manuscripts themselves suffer from physical neglect and dilapidation. They are housed in rooms with glassless windows and leaky roofs, exposed to the elements, and open to vermin and potential theft. Since Bangladeshi independence, there have been limited efforts to ameliorate the disarray of manuscripts, including some microfilming in the 1980s, and classification of the manuscripts’ general categories. Despite the promise of these preliminary efforts, the full scope of the collection remained unknown.

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EAP683/1/1/81: Mahābhārata - Sana 1197, Phālguna 15, [February 27, 1791] (f. 617v)

The project found that there were far more manuscripts in the collection than initially thought, with an estimated 9000 in total. This discovery added a significant strain on resources for creating the inventory and managing their assessment, however, the team were able to complete their work, converting handwritten lists into spreadsheets, and make the inventory readily available to scholars worldwide. The project was also able to digitise a sample of 85 manuscripts ranging from 1 folio up to 620 folios in length dating from the mid-17th century up until the early 20th century. The project also carried out preservation work on many of the endangered manuscripts and moved them to less exposed locations away from vermin and water leaks.

EAP683_1_1_65-rlms5566_003_LEAP683/1/1/65: Praśnacakra

01 September 2016

Call for Applications

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Do you know of any collections that are currently at risk and need preserving? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 4 November 2016 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website. This year we will also be accepting online applications.

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EAP843: Part of the Archibishopric’s Archive, Sandiago de Cuba. A pilot project undertaken in 2015 with a major project about to begin.

The Endangered Archives Programme has been running at the British Library since 2004 through funding by Arcadia, with the aim of preserving rare vulnerable archival material around the world. This aim is achieved through the award of grants to relocate the material to a safe local archival home where possible, to digitise the material, and to deposit copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely through the British Library website or by visiting the local archives. The digital collections from 165 projects are currently available online, consisting of over 5 million images and several thousand sound recordings.

This year we have started making our sound recordings available for online streaming and one of our most popular archives is the Syliphone Label.

The Programme has helped to preserve manuscripts, rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and temple murals. Since 2004 approximately 300 projects have been funded. Last year awards were given for projects based in Argentina, Bulgaria, Cuba, Ghana, India, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Turks and Caicos Islands.

The following images give a sense of the type of material that went online over the past year.

Image 4EAP692/1/1/2  Alagar kovil Kallalagar Inner Mandapa Ceiling East [17th Century]. Part of the pilot project to digitise temple murals in Tamil Nadu. The team have now started a major grant.

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EAP727/6/25: བླ་མའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་བསམ་པ་ལྷུན་འགྲུབ་དང་མྱུར་འགྲུབ་མ་བཞུགས་སོ།། (bla ma'i rnal 'byor bsam pa lhun 'grub dang myur 'grub ma bzhugs so) [Mid-19th century]. Tibetan Buddhist manuscript from Amdo, PR China

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EAP755/1/1/86 Mendoza. Photographs taken by Annemarie Heinrich, Argentina. The team working on this project have also been awarded  a major grant.

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EAP856/1/6 Journal du Premier Ministre Rainilaiarivony (Tome III) [May 1881 - Sep 1881]. 19th century archives written by Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (written in Malagasy.  Another project is also underway on Madagascar.

So, if you know of an archive in a region of the world were resources are limited, we really hope you will apply. If you have any questions regarding the conditions of award or the application process, do email us at endangeredarchives@bl.uk

08 June 2016

New collections online - May 2016

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Last month we put three new collection online - EAP689, EAP700 and EAP727

EAP689: Constituting a digital archive of Tamil agrarian history (1650-1950) - phase II

This project, digitising vulnerable documents relating to Tamil agrarian history, is a continuation of the earlier projects carried out in the same region – EAP314 and EAP458.  The project aimed to enhance the work already accomplished by visiting some of the locations identified in these earlier projects, as well as new locations, and digitising a variety of vulnerable documents held in private homes in Tamil Nadu.  36 new collections were digitised, bringing the total number, including those from previous projects, up to 74 collections in total. The sizes of the 36 new collections digitised vary from one single document to over a 300 documents per collection. The 36 collections comprise 135 different series which cover a wide variety of genres and topics such as: folk songs, poems, hymns, horoscopes, astrology, sorcery, nikantu, tamil lexicon, medicine, harvest accounts, land lease, land settlements, land partition, land dispute, land record, tax and temple accounts. judgements from the colonial courts and local judicial assemblies, petitions over land dispute, sale, punishment for communication with excommunicated persons, marriage agreement and caste integrity, compensation to families after self-immolation of widows, security rights (kaval), right to access water for agriculture from the lake, dowry details, business communications and accounts with Burma, film pamphlets.

EAP689_6_1_1-EAP689_Agreement_PP_001_001_LEAP689/6/1/1 - Agreement for temple renovation - Copper-plate

EAP689_21_2_4-EAP689_Invitation_PP_001_017_LEAP689/21/2/4 - Invitation Letters - Paper [1912-1931]

EAP689_27_1_53-EAP689_Music_PB_053_001_LEAP689/27/1/53 -Music Guide book PB 53 [1939]

EAP700: Preservation of the manuscripts of the Jaffna Bishop's House (1850-1930)

The central aim of this pilot project was to digitise, preserve and disseminate the rare French manuscripts and other documents kept in the Jaffna Bishop’s House in Sri Lanka. These manuscripts are becoming more and more vulnerable to human and natural disasters and merit urgent digitisation for posterity. Jaffna, in the northern part Sri Lanka, inhabited by the Tamil ethnic minority since the independence of Sri Lanka (1948) has been subject to serious ethnic, cultural and political conflicts. One of the most tragic events was the burning of the Jaffna Public library along with its 97,000 volumes of books and manuscripts on 1 June 1981. The Jaffna public library was considered one of the biggest in Asia.

This collection of manuscripts has escaped the bombings and shelling of past decades. They have been stored in wooden cupboards in a reinforced room of the Bishop’s House adjoining the Cathedral, in a strategically sensitive district of Jaffna City. They are, however, highly vulnerable due to their age and their current condition of poor storage, insect infestations, occasional human mishandling, humidity and other natural and environmental disasters. Some of them are in such a fragile state that they are unable to be handled.

These manuscripts and documents are part of the collections of the Catholic mission in Sri Lanka and cover a wider geographical area including the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar, Puttalam and the Vanni regions. The majority of the manuscripts are in French. This makes the collection a rare and unique heritage and should shed new insights on the contribution of the French missions in this region. They contain a variety of information about the Diocese and the parish and the parishioners. They cover two periods: the second half of the 19th century with the commencement of the Missions; and the period before, during, and after the First World War, a period that is also of great historical importance because of its implications in the colonies. They pertain to two broad domains of the history of Christianity and Christian missions in Sri Lanka, and also the cultural history of ethnic minorities in general and with special reference to the Tamils.

The project digitised 58 files, creating a total of 16,944 digital images instead of the 7,000 that were originally planned. The files mostly consist of manuscripts dated from between 1850 and 1930. The project digitised a diverse collection of records such as memoirs of missionaries or codices; records detailing day to day life; observations on economic and social conditions; personal letters; account books giving detailed explanations of the income and expenses related to the missions, churches and cathedral, and daily accounts of the expenditures on different chapters like school, orphanage, and charity; catalogues of letters sent by missionaries; sermons and commentaries.

EAP700_1_2_2-EAP_700_REG_160_0005_LEAP700/1/2/2 - The Jaffna Diocese and the OMI - Supplement, containing letters & documents [1848-1861]

EAP700_1_8_1-EAP_700_STAT_JAF_1929_0009_LEAP700/1/8/1 - Statistics of the Diocese of Jaffna [1929]

EAP727: Preservation of Tibetan Ngakpa manuscripts in Amdo region (Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, PRC)

Amdo is a region located in the northeastern area of the Tibetan Plateau. Due to its geographical features of high mountain ranges and vast grasslands, fragmented and scattered institutions of local power have been the prevalent forms of the ruling agency, until its formal inclusion in the administrative system of People’s Republic of China in 1958. In this socio-historical context, Ngakpa have been playing a leading role in the religious life of Amdo Tibetan communities, embodying a sort of independent channel of transmission, alternative to monastic practice. Ngakpa are extremely knowledgeable bearers of the non-monastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon religions. They mainly act as ritual masters for a number of different purposes and have a high level of expertise in Tibetan meditation practices, medicine, astronomy and traditional knowledge as a whole.

Despite the recent popularity of Ngakpa teachings in the Western world, their survival in the original context is threatened by the increasing marginalisation of their social role and the lack of potential students in the young generation, captivated by new opportunities offered by the Chinese fast-growing economy. The preservation of Ngakpa’s textual heritage is a factor of primary importance for ensuring the perpetuation of this ancient laic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This project was exclusively concerned with the preservation of the most endangered manuscripts of one specific group of Ngakpa in the Amdo region, those belonging to the Nyingmapa tradition, the most ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism.

A pilot survey was carried out by the local archival partner and it emerged that between 70 and 100 pecha (the traditional format of Tibetan books, made of long paper pages compressed between two wooden boards and bounded together with a string) of different lengths, privately-owned by thirty Ngakpa, were in very poor physical condition and situated in precarious locations, exposed to the damages of humidity, rats, use and age.

The manuscripts date from between the early 19th and the end of the 20th centuries. Several of them are unique copies that were rescued during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when they were hidden in various provisional locations, wedged in wall fissures and buried underground. The topics covered by the texts are heterogeneous: rituals, medicine, history, astrology, astronomy, divination, hagiography, mantras, manuals for the construction of traditional ritual objects, such as mandala, stupa and torma (decorated and painted offerings made of barley flour and butter).

The scattered location of the texts and the difficulty to reach them in remote mountain areas required extensive travel among different villages in Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Haixi Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (all in Qinghai Province) and Southern Gansu Province.

EAP727_1_100-EAP727_XiningArchive100_4_LEAP727/1/100 - རྒྱལ་བ་སྐུ་གསུམ་གྱི་རྣམ་ཐར་ཡོངས་འདུས་ལྗོན་པ་བཞུགས་སོ།། (rgyal ba sku gsum gyi rnam thar yongs 'dus ljon pa bzhugs) [Early 20th century]

EAP727_6_25-EAP727_ShampagyaHousehold25_3_LEAP727/6/25 - བླ་མའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་བསམ་པ་ལྷུན་འགྲུབ་དང་མྱུར་འགྲུབ་མ་བཞུགས་སོ།། (bla ma'i rnal 'byor bsam pa lhun 'grub dang myur 'grub ma bzhugs so) [Mid 19th century]