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History of Tibetan Studies at the IOM Print E-mail

Tibetan Studies at the IOM

Tibetology is one of the oldest branches of Russian academic studies. It has developed and spread through extensive research into the language, history, philosophy and religious beliefs of the Country of Snow Peaks. Beginning in the 17th century, Russian diplomats came naturally into contact with Mongolia, in the territory of Russia which was inhabited by numerous tribes which were connected with Tibet through their culture and religion. Thus the need to learn Tibetan came to Russia earlier than to Europe. We should note the names of the great scholars of the 18th century such as acad. G.F.Miller who, in 1747, published his Latin translation and a copy of a Tibetan manuscript found in the ruins of the Buddhist monastery Ablay-yin Kyit (on the Irtysh river), or acad. P.S.Pallas who left an extensive description of the Buryats, Mongols and Tibetans on the basis of data collected during his journey to the Selenga Buryats in the 1770s. He included there a recitation of some fragments from the Tibetan apocrypha Ma-ni-bka’-‘bum by I.Jährig, the translator at the service of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The academic study of Tibetan at the RAS began with the activity of acad. J.I.Schmidt (1779-1847), who wrote the Grammar of Tibetan and compiled the Tibetan Russian dictionary, a little after A.Csoma Körösi did (we will ignore the works by Catholic missionaries compiled by them privately and for their own practical use).

When the Institute of Oriental Studies in Leningrad was established in 1930 in Leningrad, founded on the basis of the Asiatic Museum, the RAS had already had a group of great scholars, experts on both Sanskrit and Tibetan. From the very beginning, their work at the Institute was concentrated within the Indo-Tibetan Department. It was headed by acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky, and the staff included pupils of his, such as A.I.Vostrikov, B.V.Semichov and E.E.Obermiller. Acad. S.F.Oldenburg took part in some of the Department’s activities. From 1936 N.P.Yaroslavtseva (Vostrikova) began to work there and, from 1937, she was joined by E.N.Kozerovskaya and M.I.Tubyansky. The Department had an ambitious program of work for many years ahead. Its scholars were able to make annual expeditions to Buryatia (called Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic at that time). In addition to the direct contacts with local lamas, experts on both Tibetan and Buddhist texts, they collected manuscripts and block-prints in Tibetan and brought them to Leningrad, to both their private collections and that of the Institute. Thus, the number of Tibetan books kept at the Institute increased gradually, and one of the major tasks of the Department’s fellows was to catalogue and study them.

The principal works of the Department were carried out collectively. Their plan included six major points such as:

• the Grammar of Tibetan in 2 volumes: that of literary Tibetan was developed by Th.I.Stcherbatsky, that of Spoken Tibetan by A.I.Vostrikov. Stcherbatsky completed his part only in 1941, it was passed to a publishing house and typeset, although the war prevented its being published. Already after the war the proof sheets of the Grammar was found by chance in one of the publishing houses but its later traces disappeared. Vostrikov was repressed in 1937 and could never complete his part.

• Study of Tibetan historical literature. In 1936-37 A.I.Vostrikov completed his monograph on this matter, the book was passed to the publishing house and typeset. But it was not published until 1962 when they began to edit works by scholars destined to oblivion during the Stalinist era. The Vostrikov book was published thanks to the fortunate discovery of its proof sheets.

• Compilation of the Tibetan-Russian dictionary. The entire staff of the Department processed Tibetan texts for this purpose. The prepared files were kept at the Institute but were never used. The comprehensive bibliography of works on Tibet was also to be compiled.

• Study of Tibetan natural sciences, medicine and pharmacology. This theme was carried out by B.V.Semichov in cooperation with experts from the Botanic Museum. He described 250 medical herbs used in Tibet and together with A.F.Gammerman published The Description of the Collection of Tibetan Medical Products Kept at the Main Botanic Garden of the Academy of Sciences [Описание коллекции тибетских лекарственных продуктов главного Ботанического сада АН] (1936).

• Study of Buddhist philosophical texts. Works by acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky and E.E.Obermiller published in the 1930s won the world-wide recognition and still remain interesting for all the Buddhologists. These are, first of all, the study of the treatises by Dignaga and Dharmakirti on Buddhist logic made by acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky and the research into Abhisamayalankara produced by E.E.Obermiller. Some works by these Department’s fellows were published in the Bibliotheca Buddhica series — The Collection of original and translated Buddhist texts — that acad. S.F.Oldenburg founded in 1897.

• Translation of the Indian treatise Arthashastra from Sanskrit. The project was started in 1930 and united forces of the Department’s scholars such as acad. S.F.Oldenburg, acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky (head), B.V.Semichov, E.E.Obermiller and A.I.Vostrikov. The translation was issued only in 1959.

By 1936 the staff of the Indo-Tibetan Department increased considerably, thanks to the admittance of a few young Indologists, experts on New Indian languages and literatures. There were much fewer new Tibetanists at the Department. The direction of collective works changed, hence the Institute’s authorities decided to divide the Department into two separate ones: New Indian and Tibetan. The Tibetan Department was headed by A.I.Vostrikov.

The work of the Tibetan Department that had begun so well, was suddenly interrupted in the mid of 1937 and soon dried up completely. The Stalinist repressions exercised a severe blow on the Institute of Oriental Studies and, by 1938 there remained just two fellows at the Tibetan Department, acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky and E.N.Kozerovskaya. The blow was so severe that Tibetan studies at the Institute would not recover for many years.

A renaissance in Tibetan studies in Russia has not yet happened. After the death of acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky in 1943 there remained no experts who could lead academic research of Tibet. When the Institute returned to Leningrad after its war-time evacuation the Tibetan Department no longer existed. In 1946 they hired K.M.Cheremisov, a Mongolist, who had learnt Tibetan with both acad. Th.I.Stcherbatsky and A.I.Vostrikov before World War II. During the war he had lived in Ulan-Ude where he wrote a few papers on the Grammar of Buryat and compiled a Buryat-Russian dictionary. At the Institute he was asked to describe the collection of Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints but his work proceeded very slowly. In May of 1948 B.I.Pankratov, a great expert on Chinese, Mongol and Tibetan, came to work at the Institute. He was appointed the academic secretary of the Manuscripts Department but he never took part in the processing of Tibetan texts. Nonetheless, he trained several young scholars who later carried on the research into the Tibetan collection.

In 1950 the Institute of Oriental Studies was reorganized. Most of the scholars and a large part of the academic library were moved to Moscow. In Leningrad only the Department of Oriental Manuscripts with the collections was left. K.M.Cheremisov, before leaving for Moscow in 1956, trained a new fellow for the Department of Oriental Manuscripts, V.S.Vorobyov-Desyatovsky (1928-1956). Vorobyov-Desyatovsky was admitted to the Department in 1951. In his very short life he managed to describe the Central Asian manuscripts collected from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century by N.F.Petrovsky, the Russian consul in Kashgar (Eastern Turkestan). Along with manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts in Sanskrit, Khotanese Saka and Tokhar, the collection included also some Tibetan manuscripts. Moreover, Vorobyov-Desyatovsky published the description of the collection of Tibetan documents on wooden planks from the area of lake Lobnor, purchased by acad. S.E.Malov in 1914, and edited two documents from the collection. The rest of them remain unpublished.

In 1956 the processing of Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints was continued by M.I.Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya and doctoral student Ye.I.Kychanov, admitted to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts in 1956. Theу were consulted by B.I.Pankratov. But by that time the collection was greatly expanded by Tibetan texts that came from the Institute of Religion and Atheism of the USSR Academy of Sciences. A small part of the collection that had been put in right order was mixed with unprocessed texts because in 1960 the Institute’s authorities had decided to move urgently the entire collection to a limited place where it was very hard to process it. This place (two rooms of moderate size on the top floor of the building) remains the storage for Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints up to present. In 1962 several book stacks were constructed there, still there was not space enough for all the books, so some of them were put in bookcases in some other parts of the building. The general arrangement of books and sorting out those of them that were numbered in the 1930s was made by M.I.Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya and L.S.Savitsky and G.A.Makovkina, graduates from the Department of Asian and African Studies of Leningrad State University, who were enrolled on the staff of the Institute (at that time already the Leningrad Branch of the Institute) in 1960. In 1965 G.A.Makovkina had to leave the Institute because of a cureless disease. Her place was taken by E.D.Ogneva, another graduate from Leningrad University. (I would like to mention also that in those years at Leningrad University Tibetan was taught by B.I.Kuznetsov (1934-1970), a pupil of V.S.Vorobyov-Desyatovsky and B.I.Pankratov).

In 1957-1960 the doctoral course was taken by A.S.Martynov, a Sinologist and a pupil of B.I.Pankratov. His work was never connected with the Tibetan collection. The historian, he began to study the political status of Tibet of the 17th-19th century, the history of China in the years of the Manchu ruling, Buddhism and Confucianism in China. One of the greatest Russian experts on Confucianism, he has deserved authority abroad, including China.

In 1970, M.I.Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya, L.S.Savitsky and E.D.Ogneva began to process the entire collection, giving numbers to the texts and compiling inventory books. The project was carried out during 3 years. For this period 18 thousand manuscripts and block-prints were processed. From 1974 L.S.Savitsky remained the only curator of the Tibetan collection, he was to complete the numbering. E.D.Ogneva left the Institute, M.I.Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya moved to the Department of South and South-Eastern Studes.

In 1981 V.L.Uspensky, a Mongolost and a graduate from Leningrad University, was admitted to the doctoral course at the Department of Turkic and Mongol Studies. Simultaneously he learnt Tibetan and was introduced to the Institute’s manuscripts collection. His academic interests scope a wide area. Of his purely Tibetanist works I should mention the study of the so-called Vision of the 5th Dalai-lama. A manuscript of this text kept at the Institute’s collection is richly decorated, so V.L.Uspensky could prepare a colorful CD-edition of the text with notes in English. Having a solid knowledge of Tibetan, Mongol, Chinese and Manchu sources, V.L.Uspensky was able to defend the Habilitation dissertation on the history of Tibetan Buddhism in China of the Manchu period. The dissertation is going to be issued. V.L.Uspensky studied also the earliest Mongol manuscripts from Khara-Khoto kept at the Institute’s collection.

In 1982 the staff of the Academic Library of the Institute was joined by R.N.Krapivina, a historian, who moved to Leningrad from Ulan-Ude. Soon she was admitted to the Institute proper and from 1984 she has been a fellow of, first, the Chinese Department and then the Department of Far Eastern Studies. Her PhD dissertation was a study of the history of Buddhism in Tibet and thereafter she published her Russian translations of two treatises by the great Saskyapa lamas on the same matter; later she focusened also on the study of Spoken Tibetan. In the 1990s she spent a year in Nepal and came back enriched with new knowledge. In addition to Colloquial Tibetan she studied Tibetan paleography and read Tibetan Buddhist texts under the guidance of local lamas. After the Leningrad Buddhist Temple was reopened, R.N.Krapivina began to cooperate with the Buddhist priests and for more than ten years served as a personal interpreter for the Tibetan teacher Geshe Lharampa ‘Jam-dbyangs-mkhyen-brtse who gave lectures on Buddhist philosophy in St Petersburg. In 2005 the first book of these lectures was issued, that on Buddhist gnoseology.

In 1992 the authorities of the Institute were contacted by the head of the Asian Classics Input Project, Michael Roach, who proposed an idea of the compilation of the computer catalogue of the Institute’s Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints. The idea was accepted and in 1994 ACIP sent a group of monks from the Tibetan Sera May monastery (Bangalore, India) including Geshe Thubten Phelgye, Ngawang Kheatsun and Jampa Namdol. Under the supervision by L.S.Savitsky the group began to input the description (of 21 points) of Tibetan books. It was especially valuable that they included the entire colophons of each text processed. But their work proceeded very slowly. The staff was not constant and the work was interrupted many times. The rather chaotic input of the descriptions of various texts from the collected works by various Tibetan authors and convolutes resulted in a CD that included 100,000 titles (issued in 2005). L.S.Savitsky retired in 2004, and in 2005 the Tibetan collection was under the control of V.L.Uspensky who, however, soon left the position: from November, 2007 he has worked at the Department of Asian and African Studies, St Petersburg University.

In the latest years, world wide interest in Tibet increased to a great extent. Western scholars obtained access to the Lhasa libraries. A number of valuable editions have been issued. Without doubt, the Institute’s collection of Tibetan texts (of more than 20,000 units) deserves to be opened for the world wide academics. We can only hope that this aim will be fulfilled by young scholars, such as A.V.Zorin who was admitted to the Institute’s doctoral course in 2002, completed it successfully in 2005 and began to work at the Department of Far Eastern Studies. This time we obtained a philologist, researching into Tibetan Buddhist poetry. His PhD dissertation, on Buddhist hymns, touched closely Indian material as well, first of all Sanskrit stotras. A.V.Zorin is also interested in poetical translations. His translation of the “love songs” by the 6th Dalai Lama was published in the Zvezda magazine (2005) and then as a core part of a book (2007). A.V.Zorin edited also the Tibetanist classical work by A.I.Vostrikov Tibetan Historical Literature. His new book Hymns to Tara will soon be published.

In 2006 A.V.Zorin became the academic curator of the Tibetan collection and immediately began to reorganize it (in 2007 he was joined by S.S.Sabrukova), the project including the compilation of new inventory books and an academic catalogue. Simultaneously it was decided to let ACIP to complete the project of the compilation of the electronic catalogue. It was fulfilled by Ngawang Kheatsun who finished his work in March, 2008. The long projected resulted in a data-base (that is far from being perfect, though it is valuable to some extent) of a considerable part of the texts kept at the Institute.

Dr M.I.Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya
January, 2006
(updated & translated by Dr A.V.Zorin in September, 2008)
(proofread by S. Wickham-Smith)


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