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TibArmy - The Tibetan Army of the Dalai Lamas (1642-1959)

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Bundesarchives, Bild 135-S-17-14-34, Fotograf : Schäfer Truppenparade vor dem Shigatse

Bundesarchives, Bild 135-S-17-14-34, Fotograf : Schäfer Truppenparade vor dem Shigatse

Date : October 1st, 2016 – September 30th, 2021

Director : Alice Travers (CNRS)

Member of the research unit
Permanents : Charles Ramble (EPHE), Alice Travers (CNRS)
Contract employees : George FitzHerbert (CNRS), Tenpa Nyima (CNRS), Florent Resche-Rigon (CNRS), Federica Venturi (CNRS)

Associate members : Jeannine Bischoff (University of Bonn), Ryosuke Kobayashi (University of Kyushu), Yasuko Komoto (University of Hokkaido), Diana Lange (Humboldt University of Berlin), Tashi Tsering (Director of the Amnye Machen Institute of Dharamsala)

The project TibArmy has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677952)

Website :

TibArmy proposes to undertake a study of a previously unresearched subject : the Tibetan army during the period of the Buddhist government of the Dalai Lamas, known as the Ganden Phodrang, from 1642 to 1959. This government was the heir to a robust military culture with long experience in the defence of Buddhism since the Tibetan Imperial Period (7th-9th centuries) ; however, from its inception it decided to rely on foreign armies for its protection. On the basis of two distinctive features of this period—the creation and maintenance of the first Tibetan standing army and the limited number of the troops compared to former times—the project will explore the enduring ambivalence of the Dalai Lamas’ government towards having its own army, as well as its reasons, consequences and expressions in discourses and practices.

The methodology follows a multifaceted approach towards the military in Tibet, by taking into considerations its social, economic, political, legal, religious and cultural aspects, and focussing on the multicultural and connected historical context of the Tibetan army’s evolution (foreign Mongol and Manchu armies stationed in Tibet, and the later adoption of British and Japanese military models). The research project, based on written and oral multilingual sources, is structured along 5 thematic axes :

1. A history of the army institution (17th-20th c.) : social, economic and political aspects ; 2. Interactions with the Sino-Manchu troops and other foreign influences (Mongol, British, Japanese) on the Tibetan army ; 3. Cultural and discursive aspects : integration of the army within the Buddhist frame ; 4. Material culture and photographs : a visual history of the Army (with photograph exhibition) ; 5. A lexicon of military terminology.

By focussing on the links between Buddhism and the military in Tibet, TibArmy will achieve a clearer understanding of the links between State construction, religion and army, and will also shed light on the past and current geo-political situation in Asia.

Beyond finishing the publication of the TibArmy program (see below), the two last years (2022 and 2023) will be dedicated to the implementation of an “Online Museum of the Tibetan army”, based on the database of historical photographs of the army and the photo exhibit organised in the framework of the ERC project. The aim will be to ensure the continual and wide diffusion of the results of the TibArmy project by making them freely accessible via the website.

Planned scientific output and scientific activities
The TibArmy project, in the course of the 2019-2021 phase, plans to hold :
1. Internal annual workshops (on the lexicon of military terminology and to prepare for the photograph exhibit) ;
2. A seminar cycle (six per year), organised alternately at the INCALCO and the EPHE, where project members and guest researchers will present their on-going research ;
3. Two international symposiums (following the three first : “The Ganden Phodrang Army and Buddhism”, held in July 2017, “Military Culture in Tibet during the Ganden Phodrang period (1642-1959) : the interaction between Tibetan and Other Asian Military Traditions”, held in June 2018 and “Defense and Offense : A Workshop on Armour and Weapons in Tibetan Culture”, held in November 2018) :
- “The Many Wars of the Ganden Phodrang” (July 2019)
- “The Tibetan army of the Dalai Lamas, a visual history” (Summer 2020)
This last symposium will be held at the same time as an exhibit of historical photographs of the Tibetan army, in Paris and in India.
This second phase will see the creation of an online collaborative English-Tibetan lexicon of military terminology developed within the Drupal content management system, and a time-line of Tibet’s wars with accompanying maps will be made accessible on the project’s blog.
In terms of scientific output, the project plans, in addition to the articles published by project members, the publication of a thematic collective work in four volumes, a monograph (by Alice Travers, on the social history of the Tibetan military institution under the Dalai Lamas) and an exhibition catalogue.

The 2021-2023 phase will be dedicated to finalising the publication of the collective works as well as the creation of the website “Online museum of the Tibetan army”.