Collecting the memories of the
pioneers of Tibetan Studies

What is this project about?


he Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies records and col­lects oral memor­ies of those who have con­trib­uted to the estab­lish­ment of Tibetan and Him­alay­an Stud­ies as a recog­nised inde­pend­ent aca­dem­ic dis­cip­line. Through inter­view record­ings, we explore two aspects: the devel­op­ment of the dis­cip­line itself, and the dis­tinct­ive life-stor­ies of the indi­vidu­als involved. We also take the mater­i­al as an archive of valu­able his­tor­ic­al inform­a­tion which would not be recor­ded otherwise.

We col­lect oral memor­ies of people of vari­ous roles and back­grounds who were influ­en­tial in the spur­ring enthu­si­asm for Tibetan lan­guage, cul­ture, and reli­gion in the West, which then con­trib­uted to the emer­gence of Tibetan Studies.

We focus on schol­ars and aca­dem­ics, Tibetan teach­ers and tra­di­tion­al schol­ars, artists, pho­to­graph­ers, book pub­lish­ers, spon­sors, and vari­ous enthu­si­asts sup­port­ing Tibet.

We cap­ture them as unique per­son­al­it­ies, show how and why they became inter­ested in the region and cul­ture, from which back­grounds they came, how they pur­sued their interests and stud­ies, how their lives and careers developed, why they were attrac­ted by cer­tain themes and ideas, etc. Through these auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al stor­ies and per­son­al reflec­tions, we hope to come to a fuller under­stand­ing of the people and the unique cir­cum­stances that helped to cre­ate “Tibetan Stud­ies” as we know it today.

Interviews completed
hours of archival material

The field of Tibetan Stud­ies is rel­at­ively young. Although Tibet has been by lim­ited aven­ues explored for sev­er­al cen­tur­ies, West­ern aca­dem­ic research has focused on Tibet mainly from the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, typ­ic­ally in search of Tibetan trans­la­tions of Indi­an and Buddhist treat­ises. Tibetan Stud­ies emerged as a unique aca­dem­ic dis­cip­line only dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, when large num­bers of Tibetans fol­lowed the Dalai Lama into exile. 

This con­stel­la­tion brought schol­ars and many oth­ers into dir­ect con­tact with Tibetans and Tibetan cul­ture through the refugee com­munit­ies in India and the new wave of Tibetan migra­tion into west­ern coun­tries.

The devel­op­ment of Tibetan Stud­ies has also been inter­twined with West­ern trends such as the hip­pie cul­ture, the grow­ing pop­ular­ity of East­ern reli­gions, activ­it­ies of Tibetan reli­gious teach­ers in the West, and so on. There­fore, the his­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies is at the same time a pan­or­ama of West­ern soci­ety in these vibrant and col­our­ful decades.

In Asia, Tibetan Stud­ies has fol­lowed its own path, which we also aim to cov­er in this pro­ject. As the pro­ject ori­gin­ated in Europe, its focus has so far primar­ily been on Europe and the USA. We are try­ing our best to extend our scope to India, Japan, China, and Australia.

Tser­ing Dhun­dup Gonkat­sang (1951–2018)
© Bal­ance Pho­to­graphy, 2014
Elli­ot Sper­ling (1951–2017)
© Jane Stein, 2015

This pro­ject is run by a small group of volun­teer­ing PhD stu­dents in Europe and the USA, helped by friends all over the world. It all star­ted with the humble thought of record­ing the won­der­ful stor­ies and memor­ies that our teach­ers have shared with us and which we have bene­fit­ted so much from. We hope to col­lect these memor­ies in a format so that oth­ers in the future can have the oppor­tun­ity to hear the life stor­ies of all those who have come before us and paved the way.

The impetus to start was the sad passing of Elli­ot Sper­ling in Janu­ary 2017, to whom the pro­ject is partly ded­ic­ated. The shock­ing incent­ive to con­tin­ue was the passing of Tser­ing Dhun­dup Gonkat­sang, our beloved teach­er at Oxford, whom we lost in April 2018 only five days before a sched­uled inter­view he was so pas­sion­ate about. He is the second per­son to whom the pro­ject is dedicated.

Upon encour­age­ment, interest, and sup­port of oth­ers the ini­tial thought expan­ded and mater­i­al­ised into thou­sands of kilo­metres trav­elled, dozens of inter­views con­duc­ted, hun­dreds of hours of video and audio record­ings, and a small col­lec­tion of visu­al mater­i­al. Learn­ing on the way, being enthu­si­ast­ic but not pro­fes­sion­als, we apo­lo­gise in advance for any short­com­ings of our work.

We believe that prop­er appre­ci­ation of oral his­tory and per­son­al memor­ies is gained by record­ing, pre­serving, and shar­ing. We take this pro­ject as a trib­ute to all teach­ers of the past, present, and future.

Meet the team

Rachael Griffiths

Inter­view­er, Initiator

Postdoc at the Academy of Sci­ences, Vienna

Anna Sehnalova

Inter­view­er, Initiator

DPhil stu­dent at Oxford & Postdoc at Columbia University

Daniel Wojahn

Web devel­op­ment, Inter­view­er, Video & Audio Postproduction

PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford

Lobsang Chophel Jolep


Elaine Lai


PhD stu­dent at Stan­ford University

Lobsang Wangchuk


Cir­cu­la­tion man­ager at Tibet Times newspaper

Marlene Erschbamer


Alumna Lud­wig-Max­imili­ans-Uni­ver­sity, Munich & Inde­pend­ent Scholar

Renée Ford


Cata­log Research­er & Trans­la­tion Coordin­at­or with the Khy­entse Vis­ion Project


The Oral His­tory of Tibet Stud­ies is made pos­sible through the gen­er­ous fin­an­cial sup­port of these institutions:

and spe­cial thanks to



All inter­vieweesImola AtkinsMar­ie-Laure Aris
Yusuke BesshoMar­tin Borýsek & FamilyCathy Can­t­well
Michela Clem­enteVivi­ane de LabriffeFranz Xaver Erhard
Emanuella Gar­attiBar­bara GerkePaul Har­ris­on
Ther­esia HoferStephan KloosSeiji Kuma­gai
Rob May­erCharles RambleUlrike Roesler
Jesko Schmoller & FamilyDarig Thok­mayDobis Kun­bz­ang Tsering
Guido Vogli­ottiChandra EhmGray Tuttle
Nadia Mar­gol­isAi NishidaKazushi Iwao
Shashi BalaGab­ri­ella NarancsikPhil­ippe de Saint Victor
Pema BhumLaur­an HartleyLob­sang Sumbha
Shoko MekataMichael Per­rottPema Tso


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