This exhibition of archival photographs focusses on the material culture (uniforms, insignia, flags) of the Tibetan army from 1895 to 1959, the last historical period of the Buddhist government of the Dalai Lamas known as the Ganden Phodrang. It shows how the Tibetan soldiers (both militia and regular troops) became progressively more visible in photographs during this period of time and how the various changes in the external appearance of the regular troops mirror the evolution of Tibet’s internal and international politics.
The exhibition took place during the 16th IATS Seminar at the Faculty of Arts – Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic) from 3.7.2022 to 9.7.2022.
This volume seeks to shed light on one of Tibet’s little-studied secular features: its military institutions prior to 1959. It uses archival photographs, an underused historical source, to discover aspects of the Tibetan army history that scarcely appear in the written sources, such as its material culture (soldiers’ clothes and uniforms, insignia, military flags and banners, music band).
It focuses on the army of the Lhasa-based government known as the Ganden Phodrang, during the reigns of the 13th (1895-1933) and 14th Dalai lamas (1950-1959) and during the intervening period of regency (1933-1950). The Tibetan army, created to defend its Buddhist government, was mainly composed of two types of troops serving as a tax or corvée duty: a corps of permanent or regular troops (tenmag), whose first appearance dates to the 18th century; regional militia (yulmag), who guarded the borders and were summoned to serve alongside the Lhasa government’s regular troops when needed.
Assembled here for the first time are 168 photographs of Tibetan militia and regular soldiers, drawn from twenty-six museums, public and private archives in Europe, North America and Asia, and taken by thirty-five different photographers. This produces a variety of visual discourses on the Tibetan army that is rarely seen with other topics and helps to reposition the Tibetan army at the centre of the enquiry, as seen under a number of spotlights.
The volume shows how the Tibetan soldiers (both militia and regular troops) became progressively more visible in photographs during this period of time and how the various changes in the material culture and external appearance of the regular troops mirror the evolution of Tibet’s internal and international politics.
Table of contents
Chapter 1. Camouflaged: looking for Tibetan soldiers and militia in early photographs (1890–1913)
Chapter 2. A new visual identity: the modernisation of the Tibetan army under British influence (1913–1938)
Chapter 3. The re-Tibetanisation of the Ganden Phodrang army (1939–1950)
Chapter 4. Towards Sinicisation: the aftermaths of the 17-Point Agreement (1951–1959)
Chapter 5. The lion and the vajra: the history of Tibetan military flags through film and photography
Chapter 6. “God Save the Queen” in Tibet: the military bands of the Ganden Phodrang army
Conclusion. Lessons about the history of the Tibetan army from archival photographs and films
Co-edited by Federica Venturi and Alice Travers, the collective volume Defence and Offence: Armour and Weapons in Tibetan Culture is now available in open access on the website of the editor, Annali di Ca’ Foscari.
This special issue of Annali di Ca’ Foscari. Serie orientale gathers scholars from various disciplines (history, art history, philology, Mongol studies and arms and armour specialists), in order to spur dialogue on the development and history of Tibetan weapons, and add new avenues of research on this topic, in the footsteps of the pioneering 2006 exhibition Warriors of the Himalaya (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Initially based on a workshop entitled Defence and Offence: Armour and Weapons in Tibetan Culture, organised in 2019 in Paris in the framework of the ERC-funded project The Tibetan Army of the Dalai Lamas, 1642-1959, this monographic issue starts from the observation that the theory of the ‘military revolution’, which for more than half a century has stimulated a reassessment of pre-modern and early modern European history, is still completely untested in the field of Tibetan studies. In particular, the impact of firearms innovation on the evolution of society has not been made for Tibet. The issue endeavours to build the ‘first missing link’ that would allow further analysis on this topic, by proposing five studies documenting the great diversity of weapon technology (and their corresponding terminology) that were used in Tibet, from the bow and arrow in the 7th century to the machine gun in the 20th century, by way of the famous Tibetan matchlock. Based on a great diversity of sources (material, visual and textual, such as archival, historiographical, biographical and autobiographical), the five chapters, authored by Donald La Rocca, Petra Maurer, Tashi Tsering Josayma, Federica Venturi and Alice Travers (with an additional preface by Johan Elverskog) answer, from a variety of perspectives and chronological angles, the following questions: which weapons did the Tibetan use, where did they come from, when were they used, in which circumstances, and what influence did they have on Tibetan society and history?
The presentation is now available online (see below).
Conflict in a Buddhist Society presents a new way of looking at Tibet under the rule of the Dalai Lamas (1642–1959). Although this era can be clearly delineated as a distinct period in the history of Tibet, many questions remain concerning the specific form of rule established. Author Peter Schwieger attempts to make transparent the complexity and dynamics of the Dalai Lamas’ domination using the work of sociologist Niklas Luhman (1927–1998) as his theoretical starting point. Luhman’s systems theory allows Schwieger to approach Tibetan history and culture as a remarkable effort to create—under times of great conflict and stress and using uncommon means—a stable social and political order. Such a methodology provides the distance needed to move beyond event-based narrative history and understand the structures that made social action possible in Tibet and the operations by which its society as a whole distinguished itself from its environment.
Schwieger begins by asking the crucial question of how Tibet’s society dealt with conflict. The chapters that follow answer this question from various perspectives: history and memory; domination; hierarchy; center and periphery; semantics; morality and ethics; ritual; law; and war. Each reveals a different avenue for cross-cutting discourses in the historical and social sciences. Together, they provide a comprehensive picture of how conflicts were portrayed in Tibet society and how the manner in which they were handled stabilized the country for a considerable time but were ultimately unsuccessful in the face of radical upheavals in its environment.
Situated at the intersection of systems theory, conflict theory, and Tibetan/Inner Asian history and society, Conflict in a Buddhist Society will be of considerable interest to students and scholars in these areas. Its theoretical rather than narrative-descriptive approach to the history of the three centuries of Dalai Lama rule will be welcomed as wide-ranging and insightful.
“What event brought together such a disparate crowd in this mountainous landscape? Who are these Asian soldiers wearing European uniforms?”
Alice Travers analyses an image taken by Captain H.R.C. Meade, Officer of the British Survey, as part of the editorial project “The Darkroom of History” proposed by the EHNE (Encyclopedia of digital history of Europe).
(video in French)
To know more about this picture and others taken by Captain H.R.C Meade in 1922 during his mission to map some areas of Bhutan and southern Tibet, please see the dedicated article on the EHNE website (also in French).
Alice Travers (CNRS, France), Ryosuke Kobayashi (Kyushu University, Japan), Federica Venturi (CNRS, France/ USA) are invited by UCLA Asia Pacific Center to a panel presentation which tackles the question of Buddhism and Violence in Asia through “The Case of the Military in Tibet during the Ganden Phodrang Period (1642 – 1959)”. The panel aims to examine the rapport between the Buddhist government of the Dalai Lama and its army from multiple viewpoints:
Alice Travers, CNRS, CRCAO: “TibArmy’s Recent Research Developments on the Theme of Buddhism and the Military in Tibet”
Ryosuke Kobayashi, Kyushu University: “Militarization of Dargyé Monastery: Contested Borders on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier during the Early Twentieth Century”
Federica Venturi, CNRS, CRCAO / UCLA: “His Holiness’ Army: Some examples from the Documents of the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas”
Organised in the framework of the TibArmy project with the core team and invited participants, this panel studies the numerous wars fought by the Tibetan armies both in internal and international contexts during the Ganden Phodrang period. It seeks to document less-known armed conflicts and shed light on other better-known events through new sources, depicting how battles were then fought; it also analyses the role of wars, be they won or lost, as generating change on four levels: in the development of the Tibetan military institutions themselves; in the development of the Tibetan government; in the links between army and society; in international politics.
Chair: Alice Travers; Discussant: Tashi Tsering Josayma
8:30 Ryosuke Kobayashi, Alice Travers – Panel Introduction
8:40 Federica Venturi – The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Conflict with Bhutan in 1668
9:05 Yuri Komatsubara – Tibetan Policies during the First Sino-Gurkha War (1788-1789)
9:30 Dai Yingcong – The Gurkha Wars and the Shift of the Qing Tibetan Policy during the Qianlong-JiaqingTransition, 1780-1820
9:55 Jeannine Bischoff – Rewarding a Paid Sword – A 1904 Letter of Honour by the bka’ shag for Soldiers Who Fought the British Invaders
View of the Fortress of Anley, one of the main residences of Sengge Namgyal (1616-1623 / 1624-1642), on the border between Ladakh and Guge (photo by Quentin Devers, 2018)
Ladakh extends over a territory previously divided between the Tibetan and Central-Asian spheres. Because of this particular situation, a wide diversity of groups have inhabited the region: Dards, “Mons”, Turks, Tibetans, Mongols, etc. have left a rich array of archaeological remains for us to study all over the country. Its important mineral resources (gold, iron, copper, chrome) as well as international trade routes have attracted since times immemorial hordes of bandits and armies of all kinds, leading to the development of the densest defensive infrastructure of the Tibetan plateau. This seminar aims at covering the evolution of military architecture in the region, the differences between the fortresses of the numerous cultures represented , and how this diversity enabled the emergence of the famous fortified palaces of Ladakh – the architectural precursors of a number of the great palaces of the Ganden Phodrang such as the Potala.
Les sources tibétaines, britanniques et chinoises donnent à voir les différentes étapes de la capitulation des troupes chinoises stationnées au Tibet. Elles permettent de suivre le déroulement des événements : la mutinerie à Lhasa, les négociations entre les gouvernements britannique et chinois et la narration des difficultés rencontrées tout au long du trajet de retour vers la Chine. De registres différents, elles invitent à réfléchir sur les interprétations et les priorités que chacune des parties privilégie et à discuter de la potentialité d’écrire une histoire à parts égales de la reddition des troupes chinoises du Tibet.
Under the Dalai Lamas’ government of Tibet (1642-1959) the avowed aim of politics was to serve religion. But sometimes it was religion that served politics. Based on a voluminous Tibetan-language literature (much of it ritual texts), this talk will look at the manner in which Guandi, the Chinese god of war, was incorporated into the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhist protectors during the 18th and 19th century. It will show how this development in the religious/literary sphere, which was led by (mostly Mongolian) Geluk lamas with links to the imperial court, closely mirrored the various stages in the establishment and consolidation of a Qing Protectorate in Tibet and the presence of Chinese military garrisons there. The talk will also try to show that as Qing military power weakened during the second half of the 19th century, the identity of Guandi and the temples devoted to him in Inner Asia, became increasingly overgrown and obscured by his superscription as a completely different figure, namely Gesar Gyalpo/ Geser Khan, the eponymous hero of Tibetan and Mongolian epic traditions. By the time of Tibet’s independence (1913-1951), the identity of Guandi and the temples originally devoted to him in Tibet, had been all but forgotten.
The Bodyguard regiment (Tib. Ka dang sku srung dmag sgar) was created by the 13th Dalai lama around 1913-1914 and dissolved, with the rest of the remaining Tibetan troops, in 1959 after the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. When started, it was the first regiment (regiments were named in alphabetical order, hence “Ka”) in the newly organised and numerically increased army. It complemented the former Ganden Phodrang force of 3000 Tibetan soldiers, called “rgya sbyong” (lit. “trained by the Chinese”) at least since the end of the 18th century.
This paper will present a first attempt at a historical study of the Bodyguard regiment, based on an ensemble of Tibetan oral and written autobiographical accounts (notably some thirty-five interviews with Tibetan soldiers who served before 1959 in the Bodyguard regiment, and five book-length and article-length accounts of the Tibetan Bodyguard regiment’s officers published in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in India), as well as on British archival sources. Beyond the study of its organisation, its social composition and development over its period of existence, the presentation will particularly underline how this regiment was conceived as a showcase of the project of military modernisation launched by the 13th Dalai lama, functioning as a “model regiment” for the other permanent Tibetan troops, while retaining certain specificities related to its primary – and highly prestigious – role as the personal bodyguard to the Ganden Phodrang government’s ruler.