Origins and scientific context of the programme

This new programme builds on previous work on the Ganden Phodrang government in social history, notably the work of Luciano Petech (1973, on a sample of the largest aristocratic families of lay civil servants between the 17th and 20th centuries) and Alice Travers (2009, 2011, 2012, 2020, on the whole ensemble of aristocratic lay civil servant families during the first half of the 20th century), in administrative history (Christoph Cüppers 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007) and in religious and political history, notably the work of Peter Schwieger (2015 and 2021, on the Ganden Phodrang and the Qing Empire) and that of Melvyn Goldstein (1968, 1989, 2007, 2013, 2019, on the first half of the 20th century); on the other hand, the programme expands on the results of two previous CRCAO programmes (2019-2023 quinquennial), i.e. « Social History of Tibet », which highlighted the importance of archives in the field of Tibetan social history, and the ERC project « TibArmy » on the history of the Ganden Phodrang army (17th-20th centuries).

Project summary

The programme aims at studying the government of the Ganden Phodrang, the largest political entity in the Tibetan cultural area in modern and contemporary times, which ruled over Western Tibet, Central Tibet and part of Eastern Tibet. The program focuses on the analysis of its civil and military institutions over the long term, from its establishment in 1642 by the Fifth Dalai Lama to its demise in 1959 after the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. Starting from the premise that a widespread focus on Tibet’s religious institutions has left gaps in our understanding of the process of state- and bureaucracy- building at work over the government’s three centuries of existence, this program proposes to analyse the evolution in the service of the Tibetan government between the 17th and 20th centuries, using a new corpus of sources. To this end, the program is divided into two parts, focusing respectively on the civil and military aspects of state service, although the two are closely linked.

Axis 1. State service by noble officials

The first axis of research will be based on Alice Travers’ study of a private and hitherto unexamined archive collection of the Surkhang (Zur khang) family, comprising forty-five documents and spanning the period from the 17th to the early 20th century.

The Surkhang belonged to a group of 200 noble houses linked to the Ganden Phodrang government, and were included in a sub-group known as the midrag (mi drag), which comprised 18 particularly wealthy and politically influential families, who had counted at least one minister in their ranks. Thanks to the autobiography of the minister Surkhang Sichö Tseten (Zur khang Sri gcod tshe brtan, 1766-1820), a manuscript of which resurfaced a few years ago, we now know much more about the origins of this family (whose existence was attested by Petech only from the 18th century). The autobiography traces the family’s origins back to the dharmarajas of Gugé (Gu ge) in the 10th century, and mentions the first ancestor to have served the Ganden Phodrang as early as the 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family was known for its military officers, before one of their members was appointed as a minister for the second time, in the early 20th century.

The archival collection includes documents of various kinds: originals and copies of title deeds and certificates of privileges (gtan tshig and she bam), contracts (bka’ gtan and gan rgya), receipts (lag ‘dzin), decisions concerning their estates on various subjects such as water management, taxes, salaries of employees, etc. This collection represents an extremely rare historical source, not only because of the current inaccessibility of Tibetan archives in the People’s Republic of China, but also because it is a unique collection due to the status of the family concerned and the length of the period covered by these archives. Studying the collection will provide a better understanding of both the management of the noble estates and the involvement in government affairs of one of Tibet’s most prominent noble families, both militarily and politically. The aim is to understand the evolution of this family up to its apogee in the first half of the 20th century.

The family’s archival documents will be photographed and transcribed. The study of the collection will lead to the publication of a monograph by Alice Travers on the history of the Surkhang family from the 17th to the 20th century, based both on this corpus of family archives and on other biographical and autobiographical sources, both written and oral, as well as other Tibetan and British archives. The documents in the collection will be put online, with their transcription in Wylie and a short presentation.

In addition, collaborations will be initiated with colleagues working on other corpora of sources (archives, biographies, etc.) relating to the Ganden Phodrang government and its administration, with the aim of organizing an international conference followed by a collective publication.

Axis 2. Protecting the Buddhist state: military institutions

The second axis is a continuation of the analysis of the Ganden Phodrang’s military institutions, which will enable us to follow certain lines of research initiated during the TibArmy ERC project, in particular the study of 19th-century military history which is still far too neglected, or the study of the military tax, as well as to deepen the lexical research initiated by the TibArmy project with, on the one hand, the maintenance and expansion of the TibArmy Online Lexicon of military terminology, thanks to the analysis of these new sources; and secondly, to set up the collaborative phase of this lexicon (opening it up to colleagues from outside the project, in addition to TibArmy contributors) during a workshop.

Lastly, this area will enable us to continue promoting the results of the TibArmy project, particularly its visual history component.






Alice Travers (CNRS)

CRCAO members

Full members
Alice Travers (CNRS)
Charles Ramble (École Pratique des Hautes Études)

Associated members
S. George FitzHerbert (Université d'Oxford)
Federica Venturi (CNRS)

Outside Participants

Pr. Peter Schwieger (Bonn University)
Dr. Kalsang Norbu Gurung (Bonn University)
Jeannine Bischoff (PhD student, Bonn University)
Dr. Ryosuke Kobayashi (Kyushu University)
Darig Thokmay (PhD student, Oxford University)