Central Tibetan Elites of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Alice Travers’ work will focus on the social history of elites in Central Tibet in the 19th and 20th centuries. The composition of the elite underwent clearly noticeable changes in the first half of the 20th century. A corollary to these changes is the emergence of a “middle class” that features prominently in the contemporary literature about Tibet but that has never been studied. Alice Travers’ investigation will analyse relations between the different types of elite – broadly speaking, those whose power was based on a form of traditional influence, such as the aristocracy, the clergy and the educated, and those with a more “modern” power-base, represented by the merchant elites – and, on the other hand, the relationship between these groups and the Ganden Phodrang government.

Research will be based on three types of written and oral sources that Alice Travers is familiar with from her previous research: 1. autobiographies published since the 1980s by members of Tibetan social groups (nobles, monks, merchants and the educated), both in Tibet itself in RPC (in the Bod kyi rig gnas lo rgyus dpyad gzhi’i rgyu cha bdams bsgrigs series, 27 volumes) and in India, in the collections edited by the Amnye Machen Institute and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala; 2. Interviews with Tibetans, both in Tibet and in exile. These interviews will be conducted during fieldwork trips twice a year in India and Tibet; 3. British archives on Tibet, located in London and Delhi will be also used, regarding the merchants.

The data available in these sources will be complemented by the study of official documents from the Tibetan archives of the Ganden phodrang, digitised by the University of Bonn. Part of Alice Travers’ work will entail the translation and the analysis of these documents; she will make fortnightly visits to Bonn, to collaborate on the examination of these documents with members of the German team, notably Jeannine Bischoff, under the supervision of Professor Peter Schwieger.

A study of these sources will permit a redefinition of the Tibetan elite at this period through a closer understanding of the marital, commercial, social and political interaction of its members, the nature of their resources and the structure of their authority. More generally, the findings will shed light on the evolution of Tibetan society in the 19th and 20th centuries, a subject about which almost nothing is known.

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