ISYT Conference Day 3

Things have been very busy here at the conference and I have not had time to blog about each of the presentations at ISYT. However, I have taken extensive notes and will be posting these as time warrants. I also have a collection of photographs, although very few of the presenters as they specifically asked that pictures not be taken. For now, I will try to update a piece of each day as it passes and will add more posts on every individual presentation I attended at a later date.

Wednesday 9 September

The venue for Wednesday’s presentations was the fascinating but perhaps somewhat misguided musée du quai Branly, which houses the “art of the first peoples” (the current en-vogue term preferred over “primitive art”). After Tuesday’s grueling day of four presentations in the morning and four more in the afternoon, Wednesday was a welcome respite. Only five presentations could be attended by any one person and there was a scheduled trip to the Musée Guimet des Arts asiatiques.

The group of Tibetans attending the conference all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the visit and everyone was particularly impressed by the many statues and artifacts from the Gandhara region. I also noticed an interesting crystal dorje and phurba from Nepalese craftsman.

Musée de quai Branly

Musée du quai Branly

ISYT participants at the Musée Guimet

ISYT participants at the Musée Guimet

Crystal Dorje made by Nepalese craftsmen for Tibetan monastery.

Crystal Dorje made by Nepalese craftsmen for Tibetan monastery.

The Presentations: People and Places of Power

Alice Travers (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, France)

“The Careers of the Ganden phodrang officials (1895-1959)”

One of the few presentations from the world of anthropological studies that I attended, this piece of Alice’s dissertation focuses on presenting a clearer view of the careers of Tibetan aristocratic families in the years leading up to the Chinese occupation. Although some work on this issue was done by Luciano Petech and Melvyn Goldstein, Alice’s work greatly improves the quality of our understanding through a more detailed study using a larger sample and contradicts a few of the earlier claims about Tibetan aristocracy. In order to compile a database of material on the aristocratic families of the time, Alice reviewed hundreds of documents from the British Archives, read Tibetan’s autobiographies, and interviewed many living descendants of aristocratic families. In this way she compiled information on 1210 positions held by aristocratic Tibetans during the time in question.

According to this research, positions held in the Ganden phodrang were distributed among several areas:  33% in territorial administration, 49% in the central administration, 14% in the army, 2% in the Dalai Lama’s household, and 1% was unidentifiable in the database. Although there were technically supposed to be 175 monastic and 175 lay positions there were actually at least 230 monastic officials and 200 lay officials (likely much higher near the end of the period in question). The Tibetan aristocracy that peopled these positions was divided into four groups: sde dpon at the top, followed by yab gzhis and mi drag, which are composed of the higher strata families, and finally the sger pa, a much larger group. The highest strata were actually only 13 percent of all the aristocratic families. This system was entirely patriarchal, although it was noted that some aristocrats actually had representatives do their work, and some of those representatives were women. Careers were defined by a ranking system inspired by the Manchu system. The lower aristocracy began their careers at the 7th rank, but the higher strata families (because of their material wealth) could begin at the 4th rank. The 1st rank was, of course, the Dalai Lama and the system incorporated both monk and lay officials. One could in fact go up and down in rank, and as Alice reported at the last ISYT, there was actually quite a bit of demotion followed by regaining of status. In some cases, aristocrats even returned from demotion to end their career much higher on the ladder than the rank they had held previously. Although positions often were given for three years, the actual time a person stayed in a position varied depending primarily on promotions and not often linked to a set form of three year appointments as previously suggested by Goldstein.

There was no written law forbidding a family of a lower rank to obtain a position of a very high rank, but in actual practice this did not happen very often if you look at the highest offices. For instance, 86 percent of lay ministers were from the highest privileged minority. However, Alice’s database showed, contrary to Goldstein’s reports, that half of all the higher ranking positions (4th rank and above) where actually held by sons of dger pa families. This may mean that there was a greater amount of mobility than originally thought.

Dobis Tsering Gyal (Lhasa Archives, TAR, China)

“gZhung sa dga’ ldan pho brang gi sa gnas srid ‘dzin byang spyi dang byang spyi sde khag gi lo rgyus yig tshags kyi skor la dpyad pa.”

Dobis Tsering Gyal has been studying the contents of the Lhasa Archives and provided a partial overview of the 4334 manuscripts gathered so far as well as a more detailed study  of the byang spyi and byang spyi group archives, which he prepared in order to examine the political system of Tibet from the years 1916-1959, through the archives. In this 43 year period he focused in on the norther regions and the administrative divisions thereof. In this fascinating study Dobis Tsering Gyal discussed the archives of written regulations governing the exchange of power (generally every four years) of the governorship of Hor. The first governor of Hor had a four year term but the second governor lasted a mere six months. Samten Karmay asked about the rumor that the first governor had been assassinated but Mr. Tsering Gyal found no evidence of this in the documents kept in the archives. The story of these first two governors is apparently legendary as the next question evoked a response involving a great story Robin Hood-like characters. The famous bandit of hor was apparently a minister during the first governorship and was head of a clan, allowing him to play a role in the early dismissal of the second governor. The people petitioned the central government to have the second governor removed because of his treatment of the people and the bka’ shag sent an adjudicator to investigate and replace the governor. The procedural documents are extremely detailed and the archives have lists describing precise information about the exchanges of power during this time. One such set of documents describes the laws governing a proper exchange, which was supposed to take two months: Two “itineraries” were drawn up, one for the current governor and one for the incoming governor. They detailed everything in the temples and other buildings associated with the governorship down to every buddha statue and every text. An exchange of papers was made and the contents checked. When this process is finished, the new governor immediately takes over power of legal enforcement, military control, and power of taxation.

In terms of an overview of the historical documents kept in the archives, Dobis Tsering Gyal noted that 65-70 percent of all the documents were detailed accounts of the livelihood of specific people, their registered complaints and other documents exchanged between the people  and the government. The rest include: 1) documents describing provincial governments and their relationship to the Ganden Phodrang as well as the relations of nomadic group leaders; 2) details of the administrative structure and how changes of power take place; 3) legal documents concerning both “private” and public resolution of conflicts, including everything from sale of Yatsa Gumbu to sexual behavior; 4) documents on taxation; and 5) documents on religious affairs and ritual procedures, including detailed accounts of specific monks and monk’s livelihoods.

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